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Big Development Projects Need Cultural Impact Assessments

Nairobi, 18 November 2002 - New dam-building, mining and road-development schemes should only get the green light after thorough assessments of their impacts on the lives and cultures of indigenous peoples, the head of the United Nations environment arm said today.

Klaus Toepfer, Executive Director of the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), said new construction and development projects were no longer allowed without an evaluation of their environmental impacts.

He said the same, legally-binding, standards should be applied to their impact on the life-styles and cultures of indigenous peoples.

Mr Toepfer, addressing the 4th International Conference of the International Alliance of Indigenous and Tribal Peoples of the Tropical Forests taking place in Nairobi, Kenya, said conserving and promoting cultural diversity was no nod in the direction of nostalgia. He said it was an "economic imperative".

Global studies, carried out by UNEP in collaboration with other UN agencies, academics and local people, have found a firm link between cultural and linguistic diversity and biodiversity.

"If you look at languages, you can see the links. On a global level we have less than 7,000 languages and of those up to 2,500 are on the Red List of endangered languages. If you correlate this to biodiversity, the wealth of animal and plant life on the planet, you see that where you are losing cultural diversity, you are losing biodiversity, and visa versa," he told the conference which has attracted indigenous peoples from Africa and Latin America to Asia and the Pacific.

Mr Toepfer said the wealth of animal and plant life nurtured by indigenous, tribal and local peoples "for generations, for ages" amounted to a treasure trove of potentially promising new drugs, crops and industrial products for the 21st century.

Sadly, many of these cultures and their indigenous knowledge are being lost, partly as a result of the globalization of trade, of the media, and the rising dominance of western or northern-style values and traditions.

Big, infrastructure, developments such as dams and mining camps and insensitive tourism projects are also taking their toll, either forcing indigenous communities from their lands or by bringing such peoples and their cultures into conflict with new ones for which they may be ill-prepared.

"This why I fully support the Alliance's call for cultural damage to be assessed. The more we lose diversity, both culturally and in the natural world, the more we run the risk of instability, the possibility of disasters such as crop failures and basic knowledge on coping with natural disasters such as drought," said Mr Toepfer.

"For example local people and tribes have, for millenia, developed strategies and methods for surviving in often harsh, sometimes, low rainfall areas. These have allowed them to grow crops and graze livestock without sacrificing the fertility and stability of the land. We must give this knowledge and the genetic resources so carefully nurtured by indigenous people our respect and an economic value," he said.

At the recently held World Summit on Sustainable Development (WSSD), UNEP in cooperation with UNESCO, held a round table on Cultural and Biological Diversity for Sustainable Development chaired by President Chirac of France.

In April this year, UNEP helped broker the so-called Bonn Guidelines at a meeting in the Hague, Netherlands, of the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD). The guidelines set out, for the first time, clear rules on how governments can balance the needs of those collecting genetic resources from the wild with the need to recompense local and indigenous people for their genetic material and knowledge.

Mr Toepfer told delegates that in addition, UNEP would be furthering such issues at the next meeting of its Governing Council set to take place in Nairobi in February 2003.

"These issues are a real challenge for the UN system. However we will lay them before governments attending the Governing Council and ask them, what more can be done to conserve cultural diversity and to more fairly share the genetic diversity which they hold," he said.

"Genetic resources and indigenous knowledge are too often treated as a common public good. They are available for everybody; nobody has to pay them; there are no property rights. This has to reconsidered and UNEP will do all it can in its power to see that happen," said Mr Toepfer.

For More Information Please Contact: Eric Falt, Director/Spokesman UNEP Division of Communications and Public Information, on Tel: 254 2 623292, E-mail: eric.falt@unep.org or Nick Nuttall, UNEP Head of Media, on Tel: 254 2 623084, E-mail: nick.nuttall@unep.org

UNEP News Release 2002/82